Deakin breakthrough tackles overheating phones and foldable tech

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Deakin researchers have made a breakthrough discovery in the area of thermal conductivity and heat regulation, which will pave the way for the next generation of foldable phones, wearable technology and miniaturised electronics.

Scientists from Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) have partnered with researchers from Northern Ireland and Japan to pioneer development of a highly thermally conductive and chemically stable material to help deal with overheating issues in modern devices.

The results of their work were published in the most recent edition of renowned academic journal Science Advances.

IFM researchers Dr Luhua Li and Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Qiran Cai said heat management had become more and more critical, especially in miniaturised modern devices.

“Heat management is quite important – you can feel and hear when your device is overheating and not working efficiently, when your phone gets hot to the touch or your laptop’s internal fan kicks into overdrive,” Dr Li said.

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“With increasing demand in miniaturisation and emerging technology such as foldable phones, micro-machines and wearable devices, thermal cooling has become critical for the performance, reliability, longevity, and safety of various products.

“Scientists are striving to come up with alternatives to aluminium and copper, which are conductive and potentially cause short circuit problems. Electrically insulating materials such as diamond and boron arsenide have been shown to work, but they’re far too rigid and inflexible, as well as too expensive for mainstream use. We need another material to fill the gap.”

By taking a chemical compound known as boron nitride (BN) and shaving it down to an atomically-thin level, the researchers were able to imbue the material with the desired flexibility while dramatically increasing its thermal conductivity and cooling capabilities.

They spent more than two years on the new process alone, as well as seven years working to understand the intrinsic properties of the new material.

“Atomically thin BN has better thermal conductivity than most semiconductors and insulators, along with low density, outstanding strength, high flexibility and stretchability, good stability, and excellent impermeability, making them a promising material for heat dissipation on next generation devices,” Dr Li said.

“It has almost double the thermal conductivity of copper – 750 W/mK at room temperature compared to copper’s 385 W/mK – which means it’s twice as effective when it comes to heat flow and energy transfer.

“This is a fundamental breakthrough, and with time and further research it will help to open up the boundaries of what’s possible in electronic devices – particularly as the trend in next generation electronics will most likely need to be flexible.”

The full findings, “High thermal conductivity of high-quality monolayer boron nitride and its thermal expansion”, have been published in Science Advances, with IFM co-authors Dr Li, Dr Cai, Dr Aleksey Falin, Dr Shunying Zhang, Wei Gan and Professor Ying Chen; Queen’s University Belfast’s Declan Scullion and Associate Professor Elton Santos; and the National Institute for Materials Science’s Dr Kenji Watanabe and Professor Takashi Taniguchi.

Image credit: Image provided